While playing youth hockey in the Long Beach Apple Core program in the early 2000s, Anthony Bitetto often skated on the ice at Nassau Coliseum and even played during intermission of New York Islanders games.
But the Island Park native, who graduated from West Hempstead High School, has long bled New York Rangers blue, along with the rest of his family. “Everything in our house growing up was Rangers,” Bitetto said. “I’ve got great memories of hopping on the train and going to games at Madison Square Garden.”
The next NHL game that Bitetto attends at MSG will have an entirely different vibe and special meaning. That’s because on Oct. 9, on the first day of free agency, the 30-year-old left-handed defenseman signed a two-year contract with the Rangers totaling $1.475 million, according to capfriendly.com.
“I’m honored and thrilled,” said the 6-foot, 210-pound Bitetto, who played in a career-high 51 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season and registered eight assists, 145 hits and 50 blocked shots while averaging more than 15 minutes of ice time. “It’s a childhood dream,” he said. “The support I’ve gotten from family and friends and everyone in the Long Island community has been nothing short of amazing. Other teams showed interest in signing me, but it was a pretty easy decision to become a Ranger.”
Bitetto said he picked up new equipment three days after signing and has been skating in Connecticut with his new teammates. He joins a talented defense that includes Jacob Trouba, Tony D’Angelo and Adam Fox ( a Jericho native), plus a star-studded core led by Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
“It’s surreal putting on the uniform,” said Bitetto, who has played four NHL games at MSG as a Rangers opponent. “It’s a good fit for me, and I’m ready to compete and do whatever they ask me to do,” he said. “I’ve always been a team-first guy, and we’ve got an exciting roster.”
The Rangers last won the Stanley Cup in 1994, when Bitetto was 4 years old. He idolized defenseman Brian Leetch and has worn Leetch’s No. 2 throughout his career. He still has a Leetch jersey hanging in his closet.
Since Leetch’s No. 2 is retired and hangs from the rafters at MSG, Bitetto will wear No. 22. The second 2 is fitting because Bitetto was also a huge fan of the Yankees’ Derek Jeter. “Two New York sports legends,” he said of Leetch and Jeter.
Bitetto was drafted in the sixth round in 2010 by Nashville and made his NHL debut for the Predators on Jan. 17, 2015, after being recalled from the Milwaukee Admirals of the American Hockey League. He had two goals and 23 assists in 47 games in the 2014-15 campaign with Milwaukee, where he reported after his sophomore year (2011-12) at Northeastern University.
Before playing collegiately under former Islanders’ assistant coach Greg Cronin and totaling seven goals and 28 assists for the Huskies, Bitetto spent two seasons with the Indiana Ice and was a key part of its 2008-09 United States Hockey League championship team.
Bitetto has played in 183 regular-season NHL games and 14 playoff games. He has 2 goals and 25 assists.
“We’re waiting to hear when we can start training camp,” he said. “I hope it’s sooner than later, and I hope we can have fans in the building when the puck drops.”